What are Group Media? An Early Experiment in Media Education


This article originally appeared in Issue# 27

In our mass media world, where do tom-toms fit? This article describes an early media education movement to empower small groups around the world to 'develop social consciousness and critical perceptiveness.'

Finding an adequate and descriptive term for a new concept or program is always a challenge. In the case of the activity we are designating here by the words 'group media," the struggle to name it properly relates directly to difficulties in defining the concept itself.

Historically, this challenge was initially faced by the Central Committee of the newly formed World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) when it met in London in 1975. The organization had crystallized around two print and electronic Media Development Units and had also formed a Commission for Communication Education. In addition, a subcommittee was established to give attention to "such things as film, folklore, group dynamics, puppets, tom-toms, telephones, etc."

Of course, all of these media have their own histories as part of human culture. Indeed, many have existed since the earliest records of human history, or earlier. But in recent times many societal institutions (including the churches) have been preoccupied almost exclusively with mass-scale print and electronic communication forms. Other types of media have received little attention or financial support.

Formation of the committee was intended to be a first step in remedying this crucial omission. While grappling with their definitional problem, committee members realized they needed to avoid terminology that focused on equipment or hardware.

For example, although films and audio-visual aids formed a large part of the categories being considered, a reference to "audio-visual" or "audio-visual aids" was bound to be misleading. It excluded many types of processes and made no reference to content or program.

The ultimate aim of group media is to develop social consciousness and critical perceptiveness.

Unfortunately, there were similar problems with almost every name suggested. For example, ''multi-media,'' a term enjoying some vogue among communicators, reflects a more integrated concept in the use of communications, but tends to be directed more towards form than function or process. The term ''alternate media'' raised the question "alternate to what?" or ''mini-media,'' suggested by E.F. Schumacher's thesis that ''small is beautiful," seemed to imply "less important." "Folk" or "people's" media seemed faddish.

Interactive Process

After much discussion, the name Group Media was selected primarily because it indicated the locus of this form of communication. It is the GROUP rather than the MASS, a very important distinction. The term also describes group media very directly as an interactional process. Participants are not mere spectators, they also become actors within the group context where they have an opportunity to make their own contribution and affect each other.

A definition created at a later meeting by the Central Committee makes this point. As it states, "Group Media" are:

"those communication activities where the process involves a living presentation and/or experience in which people directly participate... (such as) communication which emphasize(s) indigenous communication modes expressive of the distinctive cultures of various people... stimulate expression and reflection in face-to-face encounters... facilitate discussion... bring media close to and under the control of the people... are conveyed through creative expression involving dedicated individuals and gatherings of concerned people."

As defined, "Group Media" are aimed specifically at small target audiences which need not (and for the purposes probably will NOT) want expensive electronic equipment. With its reliance on stimulating interactive growth opportunities among the members of small groups, it relies heavily and indeed seeks to revive traditional forms of communication.

The ultimate aim of variously directed group sessions is to use the group communication format to "develop… social consciousness and critical perceptiveness."

Note some of the key words: living presentation...participation...facilitate discussion...stimulate expression and reflection...face-to-face encounters...creative involvement...developing social consciousness. The focus is on WHAT happens rather than HOW it happens. Whatever media are used, something is meant to happen within the community or group. It is a shared experience of some kind in which members of the group become a part of the process.

Creating Concern

Although, as a technique, group media is not limited to the religious context, it is a most appropriate method for creating the concern for community and the desire for people to interrelate in unifying groups that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

In New Testament terms this is called Koinonia. Translated usually as fellowship, a sharing of friendship, Koinonia is that which binds Christians to each other, to Jesus Christ and to God. It results from sharing love and forgiveness within a community of believers.

Practically speaking, this is most effectively accomplished in small primary groups where face-to- face communications are possible. But sharing with the less fortunate, the outside, is also meant, as Paul urges: "Share your belongings with your needy brothers and sisters and open your homes to strangers." (Romans 12:13)

This fellowship or shared communion comes down to us from the Latin ''communicare,'' from which we get the word ''communion'' as well as ''communications.'' For Christians the imperative is equally great to be ''in community'' and ''in communication'' with both God and neighbors.

Unfortunately, this sense of fellowship dimmed as the institutional church took over the small communities when persecution ceased after Constantine. The practice of faith became a spectator affair and communications largely a one-way street. Tragically, many Christians who remain loyal to local congregations have never experienced their churches as supportive fellowships, but only as institutions conducting programmed functions.

True communion within communities depends on people being able and willing to communicate with each other, an insight which has been reinforced by the social science studies of the past few years. The study of group dynamics, the development of the 'human potential' movement, prayer and meditation groups and other snail group forms have demonstrated people's hunger for this kind of community life.

Shared Experiences

The sociopolitical effect of the need for shared experiences can also be seen in the increasingly sharp definition of communications within the Third World. The First World's concentration on technology and sophisticated message presentation is being tempered by the Third World's emphasis on indigenous forms and simplicity of message presentation.

Large investments in mass media have been lost to both churches and corporations when facilities or media were taken over by unsympathetic governments. Preoccupation with 'mass' communications is giving way to the concept of target audiences. In the First World the increasing specialization of magazines and the growth of talk shows exemplifies this trend.

Message makers have become aware that one or even two media are not enough, that people assimilate in the aggregate the many messages they receive from various media. In recent years, therefore, the multimedia concept has become accepted by institutions in their approach to communications.

Since non-profit-making institutions often tend to make transitions more slowly, traditionally print-oriented church organizations which have only warily been involved in electronic communication are finding it difficult to adjust to a multi-media approach. But adjust they must! Third World churches have less of a problem.

For the millions of people who never or very rarely see a television or newspaper, listen to a radio or watch a film, poverty precludes the luxury of mass media. For such people, 'mass media' are class media controlled by the elite for those ordinarily above the poverty line. These millions represent a major concern for churches, and group media techniques which relate to their indigenous cultures are among the best tools for reaching them.

Media as Strategy

One pitfall is that specialists in this kind of group work tend to become exclusively interested in one or other of the varied media forms, rather than seeing them as an integrated part of a total communication strategy.

As Dr. Hans W. Plorin, General Secretary of WACC, warns:

"If the group media movement within the churches is to be more than the latest fad...hard thinking and creative planning must artfully integrate mass media with group media. Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. None can do the job alone. The churches must keep their media options open and not get caught with over-commitment to one medium. Only then can strategies be re-examined and appropriate changes made."

Keeping this attitude in mind helps groups trying to develop group media programs to get beyond the question of form. They can then concentrate on more appropriate functional definitions and goals: to stimulate expression in face-to-face encounters, to facilitate discussion, to expedite information-sharing and group decision-making, to develop social consciousness.

It's important to remember that group media can be defined also by what they are NOT: they are not mass media, nor are they meant for a heterogeneous mass audience, they are not directed at isolated individuals (but at individuals as part of a group or community), they are not 'one-way' communications, they are not meant to be entertainment, they are not completed productions that the group receives passively. They are open-ended and meant to encourage active participation.

Some group media are probably as old as the human race. Some are as new as the discoveries being made today by groups throughout the world as they develop their abilities to communicate, to inter-relate, and to experience Koinonia at ever deepening levels. That is what Group Media are all about.

Author Bio: 

Don Roper was an early pioneer in group media development for the World Association for Christian Communication, London.